Gary Hubbell: The Redneck Tree Hugger
December 23, 2009
Merry Christmas. Screw you. Happy Hanukkah. Piss off. Allah akbar. Love. Kill.
Interesting, isn’t it, how we react to words? Above I’ve written several simple phrases, each with a very different meaning. When I was a kid, people were a lot more careful about what they said. If you made a slur about someone’s mother or flipped somebody off, you would likely find yourself in a fistfight. The other day I honked my horn at a teenage girl busily texting at a stoplight, and she and her passenger flipped off me and my son six times.
Our words seem much more casual now, but in reality words are more important than ever.
Have you ever wondered how Google works? Sergey Brin and Larry Page are worth $18 billion each because they pioneered a mathematical relationship between words.
We tend to think of words in a literal sense, relating emotions, experiences, concepts, feelings and communications. Computer searches see words in the context of “latent semantic indexing,” or a mathematical algorithm that computes probabilities of words being linked in context. For example, I could post an article on my website about buying a Colorado ranch. I could use words such as grazing, cattle, Rocky Mountains, Aspen, homeowner, warranty deed, broker – and then I’d come up in searches for “Colorado ranch real estate” without ever actually using the words.
Google’s concept expands on latent semantic indexing by analyzing the inbound links from one site to another and assigning a PageRank to it. (Larry Page – PageRank, get it?) In order to be ranked, a site must be indexed in the Internet, which is not a given. If you download the Google Toolbar, you’ll see a little green bar on your Internet browser. Mouse over that and it will tell you the PageRank of each site you visit. A PR0 site is very weak, and has few inbound links to it. A PR1 site is 100 times more powerful than a PR0; a PR2 is 100 times more powerful than a PR1, and so on. A PR2 site with 100 inbound PR1 links to it might be raised to a PR3; however, adding just one PR8 link might boost it to a PR4 or PR5. The higher the page ranking, the more powerful the site, and the more often the site comes up in searches.
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But consider this: If you’re using Google to search for information about someone or something, then others can use it to search for you. We all know that. Even more sinister, however, is that your searches can be catalogued and used against you.
In this age of instant information, you can look up reams of information on practically anyone. And by the way, that’s exactly what the government does, except they also do it by filtering your private records, phone conversations, e-mails, personal data – and searches.
Did you know that Sprint fed their customers’ GPS data to police agencies more than 8 million times in just one year? Sprint has a 110-person department in their electronic surveillance group, responding mostly to warrantless surveillance requests from overjoyed police agencies who are having a ball with their new toy. And Sprint has only 20 percent of the market share. In fact, Joe Nacchio, ex-CEO of Qwest Communications, defended his insider-trading prosecution on the basis of top-secret government contracts supposedly allotted for data mining and surveillance. He now resides in a federal prison.
Think about that “tell me” voice recognition program that you hear instead of a real person when you dial an 800 number. That’s the next extension of latent semantic indexing – converting the spoken word into text, and then into an algorithm. Think of all the cell phone calls and e-mails pinging around the world, but imagine them being funneled through a great big digital hopper. When something unusual crops up – such as “Muslim president” combined with “long range” – Bingo! Maybe you’re the lucky winner of a visit from the Secret Service.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” He’s also been quoted as telling his friends to keep anything off a computer that they want to keep private. In other words, don’t succumb to your deepest, darkest desires and research your fantasies online. Let’s say you’re concerned about sexual exploitation of children. You search for kiddie porn, an imbedded keyword filter trips your search, your IP address becomes the subject of a search warrant, they confiscate your computer, and those pictures of your pre-schoolers taking a bath together could mean you have a very miserable Christmas.
In the meanwhile, it’s easy to blame it all on George Bush and the neocons who cast this broad net to catch bad guys, but this is power, baby. All the liberals who were concerned about civil liberties in the 2008 election can stay concerned. Do you think the Obama administration is going to let go of such a powerful tool for data mining, surveillance and control? Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned us to be wary of vets returning from combat zones due to an “increase in recruitment, threatening communications and weapons procurement by white supremacy extremist and militia/sovereign-citizen extremist groups.” Aha! “Threatening communications.” In other words, they’ve been monitoring military veterans’ e-mails, phone calls and Internet searches.
Every time you search for Christmas gifts online, read blogs, send e-mails and text messages, you’re creating a profile of yourself, a digital record. In the end, it’s only words, but words can be very powerful. Be careful.